When the war in Syria took off there were some contested stories over whether Moqatada al-Sadr had sent his men to fight there or not. One problem was the fact that the Sadr movement had splintered so much during the U.S. occupation that it was often difficult to determine who was and wasn’t part of it. Sadr initially said he was opposed to intervening in the conflict on religious and political grounds. Eventually he did decide to join in after lobbying by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, and to keep up with the other major Shiite parties in Iraq.
As soon as President Bashar al-Assad came under threat from protesters and later rebels Iran stepped in to protect the regime, and called on its allies in Iraq and Lebanon to help. Starting in early 2012 Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, Hezbollah Nujaba, Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada, and others along with Lebanese Hezbollah began deploying to Syria. The Iraqi groups justified their presence in Syria as protecting the Sayid Zainab shrine in the Damascus suburbs. They were also afraid that Syria might fall to Sunni jihadists. Finally, they were all close to Iran and have worked with it before, and Tehran’s main goal is to keep Assad in power. Some like Kataib Hezbollah for example, were creating by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Many of these groups were made up of former Sadrists, making it difficult to determine whether Sadr was involved or not. The spokesman for Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein for example said that it was made up of former Mahdi Army fighters. At the same time, almost all of these groups were connected to Iran, which Sadr has had a very difficult relationship with. During the occupation Sadr asked Tehran for assistance to fight the Americans, and he went into self-imposed exile there from 2008-2011. At the same time, Iranian leaders found Sadr difficult to work with and actively tried to break his group apart leading to the creation of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and others. Given this history it was not surprising that Sadr was not immediately involved in the Syrian conflict.
Sadr has publicly denied that he joined the war. In June 2012, Sadr said that none of his men had gone to Syria, but that breakaway groups could have. Two years later he told Al Hayat, “What is happening in Syria is an internal issue and no one is entitled to interfere.” Sadr however has worked covertly before, not wanting to publicly take responsibility for some of his actions, and Syria proved to be the same.
Sadr also had religious objections to Iran and others intervening in Syria, but eventually joined in to keep up with his political competitors. According to Al Rai’s Elijah Magnier, Sadr told Iran and Hezbollah that Assad should be defeated so that the Mahdi could return. According to Shiite Islam, three figures will appear Yamani, Khorasani, and Sufyani, and their struggle will bring about the return of the Mahdi. Sadr told Tehran part of this battle would take place in Al-Sham, Syria and therefore Assad had to fall. Sadr claimed that Iran and its allies were preventing this from happening. Iran and Hezbollah lobbied with Sadr asking him what if the Mahdi did not appear should Syria be lost? This argument, along with the fact that most of the major Shiite parties in Iraq were already fighting in the war, eventually led Sadr to send around 2,000 fighters to Syria in June 2013. Sadr did not want to lose out to his competitors, and Iran and Hezbollah wore down his opposition. At the same time, he did not want to be open about his involvement. He has therefore, kept on attacking the Iraqi militias who went to Syria before him calling them “foreign entities” for their Iranian backing, while taking part in the fighting himself.
The Syrian war has become part of the larger competition between regional forces. Iraq’s Shiite parties have come to the side of the Assad government along with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. It didn’t seem like Sadr would have gotten involved in this conflict given his past with Tehran, but its pressure along with Sadr’s desire to keep up with other Iraqi parties made him throw in his lot. His forces are now in Syria with the rest even though he continues to deny it. This follows Sadr’s pattern of not wanting to take public responsibility for his actions. He took a similar path when he agreed to Iran’s backing in 2004 to help him fight the Americans. Being an Iraqi nationalist and his father’s opposition to Iranian influence he did not want people to know about his new alliance. Instead he formed Asaib Ahl Al-Haq that would act like an independent group, but would actually still be part of the Sadr Trend. Still, Sadr’s commitment to Syria does not appear to be a large one, and he may just want to be able to claim that he was involved in the fight.
Abbas, Mushreq, al-Taei, Sarmad, “Sadr calls on Maliki to visit protest sites in Anbar,” Al Monitor, 1/5/14
Agence France Presse, “Sadr says his followers not fighting in Syria,” 6/8/12
Haddadi, Anissa, “Syria: Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr Reported Sending Fighters to Prop Up Assad Regime,” International Business Times, 11/23/11
Smyth, Phillip, “From Karbala to Sayyida Zaynab: Iraqi Fighters in Syria’s Shi’a Militias,” CTC Sentinel, 8/27/13
- “The Shiite Jihad In Syria And Its Regional Effects,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 2015
Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “The Return of Iraqi Shi’I Militias To Syria,” Middle East Institute, 3/16/15